This Is Your Brain on Sex: Krista Tippett Interviews Helen Fisher

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, in a wide-ranging, personal conversation with the anthropologist/explorer of the science of love, sex, and marriage, Helen Fisher. She’s well known for her TED talks and her research for, where she’s chief science advisor. When we fall in love, it turns out, it’s dopamine that makes us feel obsessed with the object of our desire, while chemicals released during sex activate a profound sense of bonding.

MS. TIPPETT: Another thing from your science that I was applying to that is you talked about how casual sex doesn’t really remain casual.

MS. FISHER: It’s not casual. Unless you’re so drunk you can’t remember.

MS. TIPPETT: And why? And why? I mean, how you can explain it, it’s because of what is set off in your brain and your body conspires to make you start feeling attached to this person.

MS. FISHER: Or in love, or both.

MS. TIPPETT: Or in love. Yeah.

MS. FISHER: Right. And, when you have orgasm, you get a real flood of oxytocin and vasopressin. And these are the basic bodily and brain systems for attachment.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. It’s like what mother’s get when they love their babies. It’s a primal…

MS. FISHER: Yeah, yeah. I mean, don’t have sex with somebody you don’t want to feel something for. I mean, people can do what they want to do. I’m not in the “should” business. But the bottom line is, if you don’t want to get attached to somebody, it’s easier to not sleep with them. [laughs]

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Right.

MS. FISHER: Because you might end up being attached to somebody who really does not fit into your life.

MS. TIPPETT: And I think as — again, in this new world — I mean, I grew up in a very conservative, strict, Southern Baptist — you know, small town where you were saving yourself for marriage, like, and this was just an absolute. And now I kind of look back on that and see it as helpful in a way. Like it provided boundaries that were good so that you didn’t — I mean, I actually see these rules at a point.

MS. FISHER: Right. Human animal needs boundaries. And here we are in a society now where we don’t have any rules. Nobody knows what to do.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. And even in very religious cultures like that, where people are kind of crafting their path towards marriage with these religious rules, I still think all the messages that are coming at them about who you marry, and about the romance of that are coming from movies with happy endings, and all the love songs that we just — that we’re awash in at that age.

MS. FISHER: I remember…

MS. TIPPETT: And I wanted to ask you about that because I guess one of my kind of deeper concerns here with this subject is that somehow — I love your idea that this knowledge is power. And somehow our brains take us through these several, very powerful stages to getting to the point of being with other people. But somehow we need to figure out how to be intelligent and caring in this matter of long-term love and it seems like we have almost — it seems like our brains don’t do that for us.

A Generation Emerging From the Wreckage

It’s not that the students are hopeless. They are dedicating their lives to social change. It’s just that they have trouble naming institutions that work.

.. The second large theme was the loss of faith in the American idea. I told them that when I went to public school the American history curriculum was certainly liberal, but the primary emotion was gratitude. We were the lucky inheritors of Jefferson and Madison, Whitman and Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Kennedy and King. Our ancestors left oppression, crossed a wilderness and are trying to build a promised land.

.. Others made it clear that the American story is mostly a story of oppression and guilt. “You come to realize the U.S. is this incredibly imperfect place.” “I don’t have a sense of being proud to be an American.” Others didn’t recognize an American identity at all: “The U.S. doesn’t have a unified culture the way other places do,” one said.

.. I asked them to name the defining challenge of their generation. Several mentioned the decline of the nation-state and the threats to democracy. A few mentioned inequality, climate change and a spiritual crisis of meaning. “America is undergoing a renegotiation of the terms of who is powerful,”

.. I asked the students what change agents they had faith in. They almost always mentioned somebody local, decentralized and on the ground — teachers, community organizers.

.. One pointed out that today’s successful movements, like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, don’t have famous figureheads or centralized structures.

.. one big challenge for this generation is determining how to take good things that are happening on the local level and translate them to the national level, where the problems are

.. I was also struck by pervasive but subtle hunger for a change in the emotional tenor of life. “We’re more connected but we’re more apart,” one student lamented. Again and again, students expressed a hunger for social and emotional bonding, for a shift from guilt and accusation toward empathy. “How do you create relationship?” one student asked. That may be the longing that undergirds all others.